Saturday, April 23, 2016

RIP Choppers

They've been saying that 2016 has been a bad year for celebrities - with a huge number of our UK childhood icons passing away.

This week has been more of the same, with the deaths of wrestling's Chyna, Britains much loved comedienne Victoria Wood, and iconic pop powerhouse Prince.

Then this appeared on my Facebook feed ...

Choppers, one of the last of the PG Tips chimps has died.

Thankfully - you might not know who the PG Tips chimps are - but in the 60s and 70s there was a series of adverts.  The ads involved chimps being dressed up to behave like human beings - it was a source of great amusement for many Britains.

Sadly though, we eventually found out there was a very dark side to our amusement.  The chimps lived in Twycross, and were a major draw there.  However one time my mother had a bit of a clash with the trainer.

It turned out the chimps were brought up and rigorously trained with human mannerisms.  The trainer who came across as an absolutely hateful woman was making a big deal about how the chimpanzees used for the adverts were carefully kept away from other chimps so that their behaviour didn't get contaminated by real chimps.

My mother - who is no Dian Fossey - was horrified, saying "not allowing an animal to behave naturally, never heard anything so ridiculous in all my life!".  Indeed it was the last time we ever visited.  Thankfully the ads fell out of favour in the 80s as we understood more about ape psychology through work of people like Dian Fossey.

Unfortunately the damage had been done - the PG Tips Chimps never really managed to integrate back with other chimps.  Indeed the current manager of Twycross Zoo is open about the damage that was done.

It's interesting to take time to think about this.  Zoos originally began as a Victorian curiosity where animals from around the world would be collected for the amusement of paying customers - with confined conditions and taunts from the public commonplace.

The PG Tips chimps are a relic of that kind of thinking, where the primary concern is the amusement of humans.  However zoos around the world have been trying to shake that image - now the focus is not so much amusement, but helping with the conservation of endangered animals, creating better habitats and considering animal psychology, and using the animals as ambassadors for why conservation matters.

It's a powerful reminder how to stay relevant, institutions need to be prepared to change, and to question the behavior and practices of the past.

RIP Choppers - and let's hope we've learned our lesson.


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